100 pages 3 hours read

The Haunting Of Hill House

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1959

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House, a Gothic novel by Shirley Jackson, was a 1960 finalist for the National Book Award. The protagonist is Eleanor Vance, a young woman with a troubled past who, along with two other guests, is invited to spend three months in a haunted house to take part in research gathered by Dr. John Montague. Like other Gothic novels, The Haunting of Hill House takes place in an old abandoned mansion and deals with dark family histories, latent desires, suspense, fear, and the supernatural. While highly regarded as a masterful ghost story in its own right, the novel is also an exploration of how the past lingers in the present and of the forces within us that determine our destinies. The supernatural incidents inside Hill House are heavily symbolic and often say as much about the characters as they do about the house. The novel asks whether the heroine’s psychological traumas make her of special interest to the forces of the house or whether she is causing the supernatural events herself. Because the narrative never answers the question, Hill House remains unknowable even at the novel’s end.

At great financial cost, Dr. John Montague rents Hill House, rumored to be haunted, for three months with the hopes of gathering enough information to write a book that will bolster the study of the supernatural as well as his reputation. Accompanying him are Eleanor Vance, who at 32 has spent most of her adult life caring for her late mother, and Theodora, a free-spirited artist. Both women have a history of demonstrating psychic power. Also joining them is Luke Sanderson, a roguish relative of the house’s current owner.

Eleanor is nervous but excited to go to Hill House, the first independent step she’s taken as an adult. When she arrives, she is terrified, for the house seems “vile” and “diseased” (23). She is shown to her room by the passionless caretaker Mrs. Dudley, all the while telling herself that she must leave Hill House at once. She is overjoyed when Theodora arrives and takes the room next door. The two women explore the grounds, though Eleanor is worried about being out after dark. They are vaguely frightened by movement in nearby trees. When they return to the house, Luke Sanderson and Dr. Montague greet them.

After dinner, they gather in the parlor, which becomes their “center of operations” (45), for Dr. Montague to tell them about the history of the house: The original owner, Hugh Crain, lost three wives while living in the house, and after his death, his two daughters fought bitterly over it. Ultimately, the house went to the unmarried older sister, whose companion hung herself from the turret.

The next day, the four explore the house. Eleanor is afraid to go into the library. Dr. Montague informs them that Hugh Crain built the house so that “every angle is slightly wrong” (77), a fact that might explain why the house is so hard to navigate and why doors inexplicably shut even when propped open. Eleanor is annoyed that Theodora and Luke appear to be covering up their fear by reassuring her. That night, Eleanor thinks her mother is banging on the walls and calling for her; when she fully awakens, she realizes the banging is real and that Theodora is calling from her room. Eleanor runs to her, and the two sit terrified as the banging rattles the door in its frame. When Luke and the doctor arrive, they say they did not hear the banging and that the house appears to be trying to separate them.

The next day, they find that the words “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” written in large letters on the walls of the hallway. Eleanor is angered when Theodora suggests she wrote the words herself. The two bicker; Eleanor thinks Theodora is attempting to exclude her. Later, they discover that similar words have been written in blood over Theodora’s bed, and blood also covers her clothes. In the parlor, Eleanor explains why she was upset by the house’s knowing her name. When she says, “I hate seeing myself dissolve and slip so that I’m living in one half, my mind” (118), the group accuses her of “trying to be the center of attention” (119). That night, Eleanor hears someone hurting a child in Theodora’s room as she and Theodora lie holding hands; however, when Theodora wakes up, Eleanor realizes Theodora hadn’t heard it and that the hand hadn’t been Theodora’s.

Luke finds a book in the library in which Hugh Crain writes to his daughter of the dangers of sin and the necessity for purity; it is illustrated with graphic pictures and is signed in his blood. Following an argument over Luke, Theodora and Eleanor walk toward the woods, where the path turns black and the trees white. Frightened, they push forward until they discover a ghost family having a picnic in the sunshine. They run toward the house, with Theodora telling Eleanor not to look back.

Mrs. Montague, the doctor’s wife, arrives with her driver Arthur so that they can attempt to speak with the supernatural forces in the house. After a tense day in which Mrs. Montague scolds everyone in the house, they retire to bed. Dr. Montague, Luke, Theodora, and Eleanor gather in the doctor’s room, where they hear loud banging in the hallway and experience the sensation of the house destroying itself. Eleanor feels the noise is all in her head and vows to “relinquish my possession of this self of mine” (150).

The next morning, Eleanor can hear every noise all over the house. When Eleanor, Theodora, and Luke go for a walk, Eleanor suggests she might have let her mother die. They fall behind, and Eleanor senses a ghostly presence at the brook. That evening in the parlor, she is happy when she is the only one to hear a ghost singing.

In the middle of the night, Eleanor sneaks down the library but does not go in. When she calls for her mother, she hears laughter upstairs and follows it. She bangs on the bedroom doors, then returns downstairs to the parlor, laughing as the others try to find her. She ends up in the library, where she climbs the dilapidated iron staircase. Luke goes up to retrieve her. When they are safely on the floor, the others express frustration with Eleanor.

The next morning, Dr. Montague tells Eleanor she must leave Hill House, believing “[o]nce away from here, she will be herself again” (177). Eleanor at first refuses to leave. When she finally climbs into her car, she insists she won’t go because “Hill House belongs to me” (181). She drives away, flooring the gas, and deliberately crashes into a tree. The group leaves Hill House. Dr. Montague’s paper is ill received. Hill House remains, and the forces within “walked alone” (182).

Related Titles

By Shirley Jackson